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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Are municipal golf's days numbered in California?

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Assembly Bill 672 targets publicly owned golf courses in California, such as Balboa Park in San Diego (above), for conversion to high-density housing and open space. The bill died in committee last month, but many expect it to resurface in January.

Public golf is under attack in California. Although municipal golf has weathered the latest offensive in a battle waged by the state's legislature, it appears this struggle is only beginning.

A bill introduced by a member of the California assembly that targets municipal golf courses as potential sites for low-income housing units and open space died in committee in April. However, the bill likely will be reintroduced in January as a two-year bill and, despite the most recent outcome, is representative of how many in California (and elsewhere) feel about golf's place on publicly owned land.

AB 672 was introduced in February by Cristina Garcia, who represents California's 58th district in Los Angeles County, and had been referred to the Assembly's Housing and Community Development Committee and Local Government Committee, but did not meet the April 30 deadline to pass through both and is dead for the rest of this year. It is expected to be reintroduced in January, said Craig Kessler, government affairs director of the Southern California Golf Association in a recent podcast.

AB 672 is a clumsy bill, but a lot of things that are law today began as clumsy bills because they reflected thinking or ideas.

"It will come back alive on January 1 as is, or amended. This issue won't go away," Kessler said.

"The thinking that underlies it, it is a wake-up call to the golf industry. We have certain problems that are related to our use of the land that we need to pay closer attention to."

About 22 percent of California's approximately 1,100 golf courses are publicly owned, Kessler said. The bill, if passed, would remove zoning protection afforded to all of the state's publicly owned golf courses by the California Park Preservations Act and California Environmental Quality Act as well as local zoning entitlements and would "require a city, county, or city and county to rezone, by the date the 6th regional housing needs assessment cycle applicable to the city, county, or city and county ends, certain sites used as a golf course to also allow for residential and open-space use in accordance with specified requirements." 

Currently in California, golf courses, along with other public recreational amenities such as parks, playgrounds, swimming pools and athletic fields, are afforded the above zoning protections. AB 672 only targets publicly owned golf courses to be repurposed for housing and open space.

The bill targets any course that meets any of the following criteria: is located in a park-poor area; is owned by a city, county or city and county and is funded by moneys from the city, county or city and county; or is located in a high-density area.

According to Kessler, at least 40 percent of all golf played in California is played on publicly owned golf courses. Those facilities are also home to other initiatives designed to grow the game, such as First Tee, Youth on Course, regional junior events and high school tournaments.
 

"All of those kinds of things that the golf industry has invested so much time, so much resources in in long-term growing the game, the game would lose those sites potentially," he said.

"What is more insidious, among all those recreational activities available in California, all of those things would continue to be protected, but not golf. I don't think golf would object to giving up a little bit if everyone had to give a little bit in order to solve what is a genuine problem in this state - housing. But to be the only one that gives is discriminator and is almost evidence of the anti-golf animus that is out there."

The thinking that underlies it, it is a wake-up call to the golf industry. We have certain problems that are related to our use of the land that we need to pay closer attention to.

The California Alliance for Golf, a non-profit advocacy group for the state's golf industry, currently employs a lobbyist, but is hoping to become better organized to help the industry in such legal battles.

"It (AB 672) will be around next year as it is a two-year bill. It will surface in some form next January," said Alliance president Jim Ferrin. "We currently are trying to create a stronger coalition, especially one that's funded at the legislative and legal level so that such legislation can be stopped."

Between now and next year, Kessler is urging proponents of public golf to contact their state legislators in Sacramento and make sure their voices are heard.

"Golf became complacent, because it thought its value was self-evident," Kessler said. "It is time for golfers to make that case and make it long and loud. And this would be a good moment to do that.

"(AB 672) is a clumsy bill, but a lot of things that are law today began as clumsy bills because they reflected thinking or ideas. Keep in mind, if golf takes from that death (of 672) on Friday and somehow takes a victory lap, it will have drawn the wrong less. If golf takes from this that we had enough in our arsenal to deflect a poorly aimed shot in what promises to be a very long battle, and we've been given a little breathing space to come up with some longer-term strategies to deal with the thinking that underlies AB 672 and begin to address it, golf will have learned the right lesson."

Edited by John Reitman

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